Note from the author: I want to acknowledge that despite these experiences I have had many wonderful mentors and supporters at Rio Tinto, and thank them for their support. Originally I had planned to publish this anonymously due to fear of the repercussions, but I know that when we all begin to share our honest experiences there is hope that one day it will be different.
At Rio Tinto, racism, bullying and sexual harassment are systemic. While I’m sure that many people were shocked reading the Everyday Respect report released by Rio Tinto, I was shocked that the numbers reported were so low.
In my five years working at the company, I’ve never met an Indigenous person that didn’t have an example of racism occurring within the last six months.
I am a woman and an Indigenous person. Sometimes people call me a double diversity hire. In my experience, it just means I am twice as likely as another to be harassed.
On the same day the report was released, my co-worker turned to me to ask if I had read it yet.
“The stuff that really hurts is invisible. It’s the undertone of what people say, and what is left unsaid”
Then he looked around the floor of our open plan office, leaned in and whispered to me “if I’m honest, I expected that someone of your skin colour would have been pulled back into the iron ore product group by now, considering everything they are doing around diversity”.
He smiled, as if this was an information sharing session. That what he was sharing was simply facts and observations, and there was absolutely nothing wrong or inappropriate about sharing what he said.
It was the same smile that he had grinned a few weeks prior when I showed him a picture of my grandmother (who looks like every other Aboriginal person from the North of Australia) and the first words that left their lips where “…so she’s obviously not a full blood”.
To most people, this is not an appropriate way to treat people at work, but as a victim its often shocking and paralyzing when it happens.
Which means these types of incidents don’t get reported, they don’t get followed up and therefore they continue to happen.
Even on the occasion that other people are present when it happens, if the “victim” doesn’t stand up for themselves at the time, there is an assumption made that the victim must be okay with it, because if they weren’t okay they would say something.
These overt incidents happen often, but they are not my biggest concern.
The stuff that really hurts is invisible. It’s the undertone of what people say, and what is left unsaid.
It’s being told that “you don’t understand”. It’s being told you are wrong about the way your culture works so many times that you start to question if you misinterpreted your upbringing.
It’s being told by Caucasian people that they know what’s best for your people, even though you experience the problems first-hand every day.
Aboriginal solutions to Aboriginal problems are ignored because they don’t fit the western view of a solution.
This invisible discrimination impacts you daily. It’s the stuff that can’t be reported or managed.
It is what most severely impacts your productivity at work. Invisible discrimination caused me to tell myself that I was too sensitive, over-reacting and that it was all made up in my head for six months.
It wasn’t until I was in the bathroom on the verge of vomiting from the fear of how someone would speak to me in a one on one meeting that I realised this behaviour wasn’t okay.
“In my experience, my perspective has only been valuable at Rio Tinto when it is one that they already share”
It was very real, and it is a very real problem.
I raised it with my leaders. They told me “give us time to change it”. I did. Six months passed, nothing changed.
When I raised it again, they were confused “What do you mean you still feel like that?”…“we thought it went away”.
Problems that are ignored, often grow. In my case it had a severe impact on my work and made me question my ability to do my job.
I can only assume it would’ve made others question my ability to do my job too.
At Rio Tinto I have always felt “othered”, never fitting in and never belonging.
When I raise this with people I am told “that’s why we need you”, “you’re valuable because you are different”, “without people like you we will continue to operate the same way we always have”.
What is frustrating is the very same people will tell you that you are “too progressive”, “that doesn’t apply here”, “we aren’t ready for that” when they ignore your Indigenous and female perspectives.
Almost as if to say stop being Indigenous, be Caucasian. Stop being female, be male.
Having diverse people in your business before you are ready to support them and include their perspectives is selfish.
It’s expecting them to push through discomfort for your future benefit when you are finally ready to listen. It’s not fair.
A similar thing occurs when building Indigenous leaders. We are all given development plans, coached on how to be a leader, and taught leadership skills. None of this recognises the value of our Indigenous ways of knowing.
Indigenous people, are known for loving to have a yarn. In practice, yarning allows us to deeply understand a topic, its purpose, and from there, create meaningful solutions. Our “western” leadership training teaches us that we need to learn how to get to the point.
We need to lose the understanding and that only the critical information is required. When you do this, you are telling us once again stop being Indigenous, be Caucasian instead. Stop thinking in systems, think in processes instead. Fit in or F*** Off.
I didn’t understand the scale of the impact that these incidents compounded together were having on me until I worked on a new floor in a new building for a day.
It was the most productive I had been in over 6 months. I had done in half a day what had been taking me 2 weeks to complete.
The only difference was that I didn’t feel psychologically unsafe in my new environment. I was at ease, and my brain finally had the freedom to think creatively. I felt like it was ok to be me again.
“Sometimes people call me a double diversity hire. In my experience, it just means I am twice as likely as another to be harassed”
In addition, I have a sexual harassment story for every year I’ve been at Rio Tinto, each with a new perpetrator.
For me personally, the racism has been much more commonplace. Perhaps because there are more females in the business than Indigenous people.
In my experience, my perspective has only been valuable at Rio Tinto when it is one that they already share.
That in order to thrive within its walls you need to leave what makes you different at the door.
Or at least be willing to compromise on your expectations. We know from all the research that inclusion and belonging at work are best for the bottom line, that you solve problems with new ways of thinking.
Difference is the birthplace of innovation and feeling like you belong within the group is what’s required to access it.
I want to make it very clear that this is not unique to Rio Tinto. This is a problem across the industry.
I hope that in the wake of this report the industry begins to lean into difference and the unknown.
It may be too late for me. I’m now pursuing other opportunities that align closely with my values and my heritage.
For me to come back to Rio Tinto significant changes would need to be made to the workplace culture.
My only hope is that the next “double diversity” candidate is hired for their contributions and not because they can tick both boxes.
- Sara Bergmann is a Nykina-Nyul Nyul woman who has worked with Rio Tinto for five years. She is the daughter of NIT executive chairman Wayne Bergmann